Wednesday, April 21, 2004


It has been several weeks since I last wrote, and while it seems like I have done a lot since then, it mostly involves becoming more familiar with life in Tokyo. Most importantly, I have started playing baseball with the Sophia University team, which has provided and will continue to provide a rare glimpse into Japanese life. Between getting back into playing shape and trying to communicate with my teammates, this may be one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Hardly any of my teammates speak English, and I lack the Japanese baseball vocabulary, making it difficult to ask even the most basic questions during practice. The most striking example was my first time pitching off a mound a couple weeks ago. The catcher spoke no English at all, and could not understand my halting Japanese. Needless to say, trying to get feedback on my performance was nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that in the end this will rank as one of the defining experiences of my life in Japan. My classmates are either foreigners or Japanese who have lived abroad, so without baseball I would not know a purely Japanese social setting. As such, I have noticed several different responses to my presence in their midst. Some of my teammates view me as a novelty and make every effort to practice their English, test my Japanese, and become friends with me. Others, whether for lack of English ability or some other reason, deliberately keep their distance from me. However, whenever I do anything (pitch batting practice, field groundballs during batting practice, attempt to do the needlessly complicated warm-up drills, etc.), the eyes of all my teammates are upon me, normally accompanied by "Go Harisu!" Every day I feel more a part of the team, especially after last Saturday's izakaya party. Izakayas, not quite bars and not quite restaurants, are establishments that specialize in all-you-can-drink parties, usually for two hours. You sit in a traditional Japanese-style room, shoeless and cross-legged on tatami mats, and servers continually bring out snacks, bottles of beer, sake, and pitchers of "sour," a drink made out of a Japanese alcohol called shochu mixed with fruit or flavoring. Saturday night, after a five-hour practice, the veteran players treated the new players at an izakaya near campus. As you can imagine, one feels more accepted in a group after a couple hours at an izakaya.

As for the manner of play and the practices, I find them consistent with a quality I have observed throughout Japanese society: the Japanese call it "makoto," which roughly means "sincerity," but could be more accurately described as the Japanese respect for doing things the way they are supposed to be done. In baseball practice this means expressing one's gratitude upon entering the field or beginning a round of catch by removing one's hat, lowering one's head, and saying "onegaishimasu" (a very polite, respectful way to say please), or shouting support for the team throughout infield/outfield practice. On Saturday, for example, the coach singled out a shortstop for being insufficiently loud during practice and made him scream his lungs out before finally hitting his final groundball.

Makoto manifests itself in a variety of ways, and I think it is what I like most about Japanese society. The Japanese more or less recognize that there are appropriate ways to behave in public and obligations one must meet in whatever public roles one plays. For example, I believe this is the appropriate way to understand Japanese baseball fans. Some Western observers have compared attending a Japanese baseball game to attending a Nuremberg rally, with all of the fans chanting and singing in unison. Having seen two Tokyo Giants game and more recently a Chiba Lotte Marines game (Monday night), I am convinced that this view is downright offensive. Yes, Japanese fans chant in unison from the first pitch to the last pitch, but it is more a reflection of a fan's obligations than a surrender to primal urges. A fan is expected to support all of the players on the team and to follow the game closely: what better way than by standing while your team bats and staying to the last pitch, even during a blowout? Monday night's Marines game was against the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, and was the second game the Marines played after breaking a 10-game losing streak that sent the team into the cellar. A weather forecast that called for rain meant that much of the stadium was empty, but the Marines cheering section in the right field stands was almost full, and there was not a quite moment at any time during the game.

A few brief asides on the game before continuing on the subject of makoto (though not too much, since I am going to try to write an article on Japanese baseball in the coming weeks that will include more details): Bobby Valentine, former Mets managers, is managing the Marines for the second time, and he is viewed as some kind of redeemer sent to deliver the Marines to the championship (see the picture of the Bobby Valentine shrine on the webshots page); the refrain of the team song goes, "We love, love, love, love Bobby, we love, love, love, love Bobby;" Bobby Valentine apparel is sold alongside player apparel, which I cannot imagine happening anywhere in the United States (I now have a Bobby Valentine t-shirt); Japanese fans remain the most positive sports fan I have ever seen -- during games it feels as if the other team is not even there, since the fans do not react to anything the other team does (home rums, good defensive plays, etc.); Something familiar: "YMCA" played over the loudspeakers, though instead of singing most of the fans whistled along (admittedly being surrounded by a bunch of Japanese people whistling 'YMCA' was slightly unsettling); I recently decided to visit all 12 Japanese ballparks, so expect more notes about "yakyuu" (Japanese for baseball).

I have a couple more examples of how makoto manifests itself. First, train rides are almost entirely silent but for the sound of the train and conversations between students. People mostly sleep. It is a relief to not have to listen to someone jabber on and on in public, and of course reflects the Japanese understanding of public behavior. One more example, which I think sums it up perfectly: at a diner/coffee shop near my house a little while ago my server spilled a little coffee on the saucer just as he was setting it down. Instead of giving me the cup just the same, he returned to the kitchen, cleaned off the cup, and placed it on a new saucer. I have a hard time imagining something similar happening at an American diner.